Is Anarchy the Answer?

A Sort of Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell

If you’ve heard of this Rebecca Solnit book, you probably know the hypothesis – that people come together and form caring communities in times of crisis, in contradistinction to the myth of scarcity violence and mob mentality that supposedly happens after “natural disasters.” The book is a combination of historical evidence and theory, with examples from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina 99 years later.

I knew the above before I unfolded the paperback and had anticipated heartwarming examples of individual sacrifice and strength in dire situations. Those exist, but that’s not what this is about (being a Solnit fan, I should have known better). Among other things, it suggests the need we have to form communities and support each other when forced to recognize our own mortality and vulnerability – facts of life that actually exist! All the time! These spontaneous communities are set in opposition to myths and rare but exaggerated instances from post-disaster media portrayals, particularly when describing communities of color in crisis. These myths then inform policies around post-disaster response, disaster relief, and policing the victims of devastating events. The details of the post-disaster communities are fascinating and inspiring, but it’s the analysis of policy that was the most enlightening.

The big shocker here, the one that made me truly question my unquestioned assumptions, was the favorable portrayal of Anarchy. It’s a topic I’ve apparently avoided learning about, and it’s probably because this is what I see in my head when I hear “anarchist”

a group of angry, young, White, currently or formerly middle- or upper-middle class males breaking & fucking shit up during otherwise peaceful protests, essentially having the same impact as agents provocateur … making the WTO protests in Seattle look bad to your average TV viewer; making environmental and anti-capitalist protestors look bad; fucking with government buildings in Portland and making BLM and racial justice protestors look bad

I have occasional Facebook conversations with a high school friend who was for many years a cop in a very White small town. Despite our attending the same high school for one year, we have very different backgrounds and have lived very different lives. However, she is refreshingly open to other perspectives without being easily swayed (unfortunate from my point of view, but probably okay). In all of our correspondence we have agreed on only two things in the news: 1) the killing of George Floyd was awful 2) the post-inauguration anti-Biden anarchists in Portland were no good for anyone. I may have even typed, “no one likes anarchists but anarchists” or “anarchists just get in the way of progress.”

Like many before me, I think I fell prey to the way anarchists are typically portrayed in the media and even the way language has evolved around the term, making anarchy synonymous with chaos & callousness. We all have some understanding of it as an absence of government, but anti-government folks on the right have never tried to claim it for their own. I’ve never heard anyone use it in a positive way before, except the specific White men I sketched above. A society “falls into” anarchy, they don’t choose or rise to or evolve into anarchy. Have I just been victim to pro-hierarchical, top-down systemic propaganda? What have I been closing my ears to all these years?

Wikipedia seems an appropriate place to start supplementing my knowledge, being a kind of anarchy of information that I have come to rely on (and support) as a first, broad source of info. While the word has been around as “an absence of government” since 1539 (why is that so scary? do we have so little faith in humanity?), it was delineated as a specific theory and goal by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in What Is Property? where he describes Anarchy as

a political philosophy and social movement which advocates stateless societies based on free and voluntary associations. Anarchists seek a system based on the abolishment of all unjustified, coercitive hierarchy and the creation of system of direct democracy and worker cooperatives.

Utopian? It seems to ask everyday folk to put a lot of time & energy into keeping society healthy and functional, which seems difficult, at the very least, in a capitalist world. Noam Chomsky calls anarchy “more a response to oppressive political movement rather than a stand-alone system of government,” a response exemplified in the book. While some of the organizations founded or strengthened in crisis survive past the critical juncture, the continuous, vibrant, and communal support as a whole does not. We go back to work, nuclear families, individual striving and distractions and goals. Despite evidence that people are happier in these communities of crisis than they are during the lives they go back to – that people was poetic and nostalgic about life after an earthquake, after a bombing. As she says, it may be that we are nostalgic for times of crisis because our everyday lives are low-grade disasters – dull, drudgery, isolated, purposeless. And disaster transforms all of that.

In order to imagine ongoing, nationwide, successful anarchy, we have to imagine a completely new way of living – one in which people aren’t working all the time just to get by, and too exhausted or busy or worried about survival the rest of the time to reach out to their community to offer or ask for help. The autonomous zone of Seattle might be nice for a while (or not), but it is physically and ideologically circumscribed within an otherwise hierarchical, highly governed world. It doesn’t really show us what Anarchy would look like, and perhaps nothing ever has on a large scale.

While my stereotypes and the few identified examples of Anarchy we have recognized in American history are White, BIPOC in the US have more quietly lived in semi-Anarchic communities, by choice (Native Americans before White supremacy) or necessity (African-Americans, Native Americans and sometimes immigrant communities) at times throughout our history. When your government ignores, fails to protect, or actively targets a community, a voluntary, self-supporting collective may form in that ostracism, like Black folks created in their economically successful urban areas (until they were violently destroyed – e.g. Tulsa, OK & Wilmington, NC) and poorer rural regions under Jim Crow. Some of these had hierarchies that might be rejected by Anarchist purists, but they were certainly communal and outside of government, because government and systems did not serve them. Why is it easier for Black folks to imagine a world without police protection? Because many of them have never lived with it.

As a typical big-government liberal, supporting Anarchy is a big leap for me. I want lots of money for poor people and backpay for African-Americans and free, excellent education that encourages critical thinking; and wholesome food, safe housing, and healthcare for everyone regardless of income. I’ve rarely questioned the validity of this belief. Shouldn’t all compassionate people want the same? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean we all agree on the best way to get there. Don’t try to convince me that free market capitalism is the right road, cuz that’s clearly bullshit, but does that mean proscribed, top down federal handouts are the best path? What does that do to strengthen communities? To address the epidemic of malaise, anxiety, and depression of our Modern Times? Reduced financial stress should help, but how much? For example, my main concern about a universal basic income has been the fear that those in power might use it to get rid of WIC/foodstamps, unemployment insurance, etc. But if the income is high enough, why would that dissolution be wrong? Why not let people make more of their own decisions about how to spend their money? We all saw how fucked up state unemployment systems were when COVID hit (software so old they couldn’t find developers to improve it, etc.); we know about restrictions around section 8 housing and other welfare benefits that leave out formerly incarcerated folks; having to regularly reapply for assistance is a sometimes health-threatening or simply impractical burden. A UBI would let recipients not only to decide how to use their money, but more importantly how to use their time. Imagine what it could do for communities, and what communities could do for each other, if people weren’t constantly struggling just to survive.

The Universal Basic Income isn’t the point here, it just speaks to a shift in my thinking. UBIs, police defunding, Anarchy – I’m starting to see the connections. Big government is essential, I think, for a number of things – vaccine production & distribution, interstate infrastructure, environmental laws, food safety standards, anything that crosses state lines or might encourage an organization to do so to avoid the enforcement of ethical behavior. But maybe food & housing & community safety and emergency response shouldn’t be handled at the federal, state, or even local government level.

Police abolition is a kind of Anarchist approach to community safety. I don’t know that I’m evolved enough to say I embrace that change wholesale, but I’m not opposed to it, and I do love the deconstruction of my own calcified ideas. The conversations around reimagining community safety are invigorating and when approached right, the conversations themselves can improve communities. No one who has thought this through believes that safety starts and ends with getting rid of police officers. The movement depends on neighbors helping, trusting, and knowing each other; it’s beautifully optimistic and humanistic. Instead of just looking at crime, it widens the lens and sees crime as a consequence of, among other things, people not taking care of each other. To paraphrase Albert Einstein and Audre Lorde, the same thinking that got us into this mess isn’t going to get us out of it.

It’s taken me forever to finish writing this – too many ideas bumping around in my head – so I’m going to let it go for now. I’ve just finished The Chalice & The Blade, which led me to some parallel conclusions, so look for that if this sparks your interest.

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